It's rare to find a restaurant that tells the story of its founder in every piece of furniture, on each page of the menu. But Chef Adu Amran Hassan reveals his heart in the paintings on ADU Sugar's walls and bares his soul on the plates that emerge from the kitchen.
As you enter, two striking portraits embellish ADU Sugar's entrance - one of an elderly, sarong-clad man with a philosophical smile on his lips and a cockatoo on his shoulder; another of a younger, regal-looking woman with a rooster admiring her.
The man is Adu's father, whom he painted last year; the woman is his mother, a memory of her from decades ago; the birds represent Adu's childhood pets. Other paintings of Adu's seven siblings also feature vividly, each lovingly illustrated by Adu himself in surrealistic style.
ADU Sugar may seem eclectically, even eccentrically, decorated. But every detail shines a light on different times in Adu's life, from a lion-bodied lamp he bought in London 20 years ago to a green door that caught his eye in India, from stately fabrics sourced in Thailand to soft pillows made by his sister, a tailor. Adu Sugar is a restaurant first, but it's also a gallery - of art, of family, of memorable moments.
That deeply personal intimacy is imbued into the food.
After four seasons of being a juror on MasterChef Malaysia beginning in 2012, Adu is no stranger to the public. But exploring his restaurant exposes more facets of the 51-year-old chef, who still has the vim and vigour of talents half his age.
Adu Sugar is popular for rendang recipes that span duck to daging. But since Adu has long practised vegetarianism twice a week, part of his menu is dedicated to vegan sharing plates, including Young Jackfruit Rendang, Lemak Labu with Jantung Pisang, and Sambal Hijau Chestnuts with Ulam.
He's a firm advocate of curtailing food wastage. His Ramadan buka puasa menu features Hidang-Style Kenduri servings crafted for at least two people, including Bubur Lambok Atuk, Puyuh Goreng Rempah, Sotong Masak Hitam, and Urab Sayur Kampung - but he refuses to hold buffets for the fasting month, since there'd be too many leftovers.
Adu's fare is vibrantly unique and imaginative but it also respectfully reflects his heritage. His parents were both palm oil factory workers in Kluang, Johor - today, his cooking incorporates ELAIESE red palm fruit oil sustainably cultivated in a single-origin plantation on Carey Island, Selangor.
Our latest visit to ADU Sugar kicked off with one of several vegetarian specialities - even after successfully running restaurants in Langkawi and London since 1994, Adu continues challenging himself to stay creative, which includes concocting meat-free masterpieces.
The Heirloom Tomatoes & Basil Kerabu (RM27.99) initially evokes Italy's Caprese salad, without the mozzarella. But a forkful of this conveys nuances of something totally new and original.
Adu uses four types of Cameron Highlands heirloom tomatoes, as sweet and luscious as ripe tomatoes should be, sprinkled not only with basil but a smooth, aromatic dressing blended with red palm oil, gula Melaka and truffle paste - nutty from palm oil, sweet from gula Melaka and scented from the truffle paste.
The dressing is Adu's homage to his childhood, when he used to collect palm fruits that fell the ground, burning out their oil and mixing it with sugar to turn into the perfect syrup.
Similar to how he selects the most nourishing tomatoes, Adu relies on ELAIESE, a premium red palm oil recently introduced by Sime Darby Oils Nutrition, heralded as a non-GMO superfood. The oil retains its rich nutrients as the palm fruit is collected and processed within 24 hours of harvest to ensure freshness and limit the oxidisation process.
This rendition of kerabu invigorates the local tropical salad while retaining its quintessential qualities - its appetising freshness, its alluring tang, and its amazing balance of straight-from-the-land flavours.
The Botok-Botok Tenggiri (RM37.99) has been on ADU Sugar's menu since the start, a dish we loved when we first visited in June 2019. It isn't vegetarian, but the moist, fleshy mackerel is luxuriously suffused with a bounty of whole and shredded local herbs, steamed with ELAIESE red palm oil, wrapped in banana leaves, making it as much plant-powered as fish-focused. A gorgeous preparation that does equal justice to the fish and the herbs, bringing both together in beautiful harmony.
Pair the fish with Adu's Vegan Nasi Minyak (RM14.99), which swaps out ghee and butter for red palm oil, lending the rice its attractive hue, with a lighter, cleaner taste compared to conventional nasi minyak.
It may seem like a simple rice recipe, but it's packed with goodness, with raisins for sweetness and a house-made masala spice mix that hints at coriander, cumin, cloves and star anise. Adu appreciates the red palm oil too, not only for its versatility - it works as a salad dressing, it works for marinating, baking and frying - but its nutritive value, comprising natural phytonutrients, including Pro-Vitamin A and Vitamin E Tocotrienols, that boost immune health and hair and skin health, and curb cholesterol.
ADU Sugar has its roots in Adu's Johorean heritage, but the fruits of its founder's labour bloom beyond that, reaching out to the rest of Malaysia and Southeast Asia - the Lotus Root & Jungle Vegetable Green Curry (RM27.99) is Thai-inspired, of course, but like everything here, the curry is vital and thoughtful, a contrast from green curry chicken cliches.
With a farm's full harvest of lotus roots, green aubergines, pea aubergines and butternut squash, coupled with a forest's forage of ulam raja and daun kaduk, and a village's worth of sayur kampung, whole and shredded herbs, this curry tastes truly green - grassy and leafy in a generous form, full-bodied with nature's abundance.
The Pucuk Paku Urab (RM28.99) is another typical-sounding recipe with a subversive twist. Fiddlehead fern tips are lightly blanched and tossed with sambal kelapa and pine nuts, turned into a vegan dish that shuns the stock of shrimp or anchovies. Instead, the umami comes from multiple mushrooms, including shiitake, porcini and oyster mushrooms, chopped and slow-cooked for hours to extract their earthiness.
We can't leave without a bowl of Laksa Johor (RM34.99) - if one dish is an ADU Sugar signature, this is it, the pride of Adu's kitchen.
There are no shortcuts to this - the spaghetti is showered with a soft, rich gravy that's painstakingly made with ikan parang, salted kurau and prawn flesh.
Ikan parang is used per tradition for a fattier texture, with its numerous bones laboriously removed - which explains why many modern eateries resort to the conveniently less bony tenggiri instead.
Each component is crucial - the ikan parang conveys a fatty mouthfeel, the kurau is savoury, the prawns are sea-sweet. The laksa is mellow with chillies, instead of being punishingly spicy, so we can enjoy it easily and entirely.
Chef Adu shares a fun fact with us - for a long time, even in Johor, you couldn't find great Laksa Johor at just any restaurant or stall. Cooks rolled out the red carpet for this recipe at kenduri-style celebrations, such as for Aidilfitri, making it a special-occasion indulgence.
Some might balk at the price for ADU Sugar's Laksa Johor - but if spaghetti aglio olio with seafood costs more than RM30 at a respectable restaurant, why shouldn't this laksa, which relies on top-notch seafood too and takes even more time and effort to create? ADU Sugar vanquishes the stigma that Asian food should be cheaper than its Western counterparts - at a time when quality produce costs more than ever, this Laksa Johor merits its price, with its wealth of ingredients and intensive preparation.
Those revelations and reminders make ADU Sugar an experience that not only satisfies and surprises the taste buds, nourishes the body and warms the heart, but enlightens the mind. Many thanks to ADU Sugar for having us here.
ADU Sugar Restaurant
10A, First Floor, Lorong Ara Kiri 2, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 12pm-10pm. Tel: 03-2201-1441